Weathering the Next Florence

Lambert here: And the next, and the next, and the next… Man, I sure hope this is priced in already.

By Greta Moran and Paola Rosa-Aquino, news and justice fellows at Grist, respectively. Originally published by Grist.

As the country watched floodwaters rise across the Carolinas in the wake of Hurricane Florence this month, Puerto Ricans were still reeling from a storm that tore through the island a year ago.

The grim statistics from Hurricane Maria are well known: thousands of deaths, the largest power outage in U.S. history, and $90 billion in damages — a heavy toll for an island already in dire financial straits. But we still don’t know the extent of the wreckage from Hurricane Florence’s record-shattering rainfall.

Increasingly, there’s little space to breathe between catastrophes. And as climate change brings higher sea-level rise, more punishing winds, and heavier rains, super-charged storms are likely to get worse. But these natural disasters are partly human-made, which means that humans can also work to avoid future disasters.

How do we prepare for a future filled with Florences and Marias? And when the next big hurricane does inevitably hit, how do we rebuild, not just our houses, but also our sense of community?

Grist surveyed experts in hurricane preparedness and relief efforts for their suggestions on making our coastal towns more resilient. Here’s how they responded, edited for length and clarity.

“Aid delayed is aid denied.”

Richard Burroughs, professor of coastal science and policy, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Waves, storm surge, wind, and rain coexist on dynamic natural coasts: We know how nature works. Adding in people with their homes, businesses, roads, and recreation always causes problems. The fixed structures and people are periodically overwhelmed by the hurricanes.

Adequate hurricane preparation consists of identifying zones of high risk and incentivizing people and businesses to move away from those zones. Insuring people so that they can stay in high-risk areas will ultimately fail because natural forces coupled with sea-level rise will win in the end. I recognize that major cities will not get up and move, but for other areas retreat is the preferred option.

Puerto Rico is a very important case where Hurricane Maria further exposed the vulnerability of not just individuals but whole governmental systems. Since hurricanes test both our physical infrastructure and the resilience of government, all Americans have a special stake in effectively addressing the issues Puerto Rico is facing. Houston and New Orleans have a lot to learn from San Juan and vice versa.

As the Puerto Rico case illustrates, we are woefully slow in making decisions related to individual claims because we have dispersed responsibility among many governmental agencies. After a flood, FEMA inspectors, National Flood Insurance Program adjusters, Small Business Administration loss verifiers, private flood insurance adjusters, and others may assess damage to the property. It’s both time-consuming and costly. The challenge for us all is to coordinate responses so that payouts can occur in a timely fashion. Aid delayed is aid denied.

“We need to have those communities at the table”

Mikki Sager, vice president of The Conservation Fund

We work with a tremendous number of community groups, particularly in areas rich in natural resources, but that have a lot of economic challenges, persistent poverty, and social and environmental justice issues. When we are trying to prepare for hurricanes, we have to look at the socio-economic aspect.

The Centers for Disease Control has social vulnerability index maps and data. The mid-Atlantic down across to Texas has huge areas of persistent poverty that are also the most vulnerable to climate change. The challenge that we face is that, for many reasons, the most vulnerable folks are not part of conversations about how to address the impacts of a natural disaster. We need to have those communities at the table. And we need to increase the flow of funding, both public and private, to help them set priorities for rebuilding.

We also need to increase the capacity of local government, businesses, and families in those vulnerable areas. Historically, especially here in the South, low-income folks and people of color have been pushed to the low-lying areas, to the wetland areas, to the floodplains.

We have several communities in the southeastern part of North Carolina right now that are still underwater, totally cut off. They don’t have access to the most basic supplies, but community groups and faith groups are pulling together funding to go out and buy tarps so that houses can start to dry out when the water has receded.

In Puerto Rico, we provided a grant for a group called Americas for Conservation and the Arts to focus on engaging the community and restructuring their food systems, putting it back to where it was [before Hurricane Maria]. They are doing some amazing work because they have local community folks leading the process. They’re both organizing and engaging the community in coming up with a solution, leaning heavily on what has worked in the past, and working towards addressing the economic issues, the social justice issues, and the environmental issues simultaneously through that project.

“It’s just really hard to establish [community cohesion] when the physical environment is pockmarked.”

Kofi Boone, associate professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University in the College of Design

Before a hurricane or a flood comes, we still have a very big pre-disaster education job to do to help communities understand what floodplains are and how they work, where they’re located, and what those risk factors happen to be.

After Hurricane Matthew, we all had a chance to work with the town of Princeville, which is the oldest chartered black town in North Carolina. That town was built in the floodplain of the Tar River, primarily because that was the available land that African American people could buy at the end of the Civil War. You find that a lot, where the most vulnerable populations have existed for generations in places that have had a series of crises and disasters, and so the recurring trauma and disruption that happens every time a flood comes prevents them from building wealth, equity, and a tax base.

There really isn’t a mechanism to encourage a community-level conversation to talk about the impacts that all of those individual actors have on the long-term sustainability of communities. It’s just really hard to establish a sense of community cohesion and maintain social networks when the physical environment is pockmarked.

I think it’s also about finding ways for people to do what they can. And a lot of the time, when we talk about [hurricane resilience] we’re thinking about you know, billion-dollar, 10-year long-range things when sometimes it’s the day-to-day stuff that makes the difference to a community that’s had this recurring trauma from losing, property, losing loved ones like over and over and over again.

There is a need for healing and remembering what makes them special and why they’re important. It’s one thing if all you know about Princeville was that it’s in the low-lying area and it floods all the time. It’s another when you think about it as the first free black town in the United States that’s situated in a district that gave birth to many generations of political leaders, not just in North Carolina, but around the country. It alters how you see yourself.

“Everybody’s working together and everybody’s well informed”

Hanadi Rifai, director of the Hurricane Resilience Research Institute (HURRI) at the University of Houston

Education and coordination, especially with disadvantaged communities, would help areas be more resilient.

We always talk about education because the most important thing is for people to be continually reminded and educated about what could happen to them. Coordination — amongst all organizations, communities, and agencies at the state and federal level — is one of the most important things. When everybody’s working together and everybody’s well informed, they’re able to be more responsive not only in evacuating people but also in getting people back into their homes after the event has passed.

It’s especially important with disadvantaged populations — meaning, people that perhaps don’t have the resources and the means to undertake actions they need to.

Being able to sustain economic development and economic growth, and balancing the risks and rewards of having industrial, commercial, and economic activities would be really important for coastal communities. We talk a lot about hazards from industrial activities, chemicals, and storage of byproducts. If we’re able to get our coastlines more aware of that and find ways that we can manage the risks from those types of activities, we would truly have more resilient coasts. When the event comes, you can recover quickly and you don’t have these lingering environmental effects left to deal with which may prevent things from going back to normal for a while.

It’s like when you buy a car and see that label about fuel economy. We need a similar thing for buildings.”

Jeremy Gregory, research scientist and executive director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT.

The key thing is building structures that are not just designed to withstand normal weather events, but built to last longer and withstand more extreme events. Part of the challenge with that is a lot of structures built a long time ago aren’t adequately prepared to sustain the increasing severity of storms.

We’re not even talking about entirely rebuilding structures. Sometimes it’s just about making sure that homes have a good connection between the roof and the walls and that you have protection for windows and doors. Because after the wind breaks that pressure seal, then a lot of the damage comes from the water.

So it’s really the flooding that’s a lot worse than the wind, but a lot of times that’s wind level is what we design for. Heating and cooling units for buildings are often placed on the ground, down low.

A lot of the research that we do is about the quantitative, life cycle costs of a building, considering the hazards that it’s exposed to. People need to understand that the building they are investing in not only has an initial cost, it’s also going to have some costs due to hazards. As the severity of storms increase, those costs are going to go up. And so we need to make that more transparent. It’s kinda like when you buy a car and see that label about fuel economy. We need a similar thing for buildings.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. rd

    The key thing is to link community planning and zoning with the financial responsibility for flood losses. Right now they are generally separated with local communities making zoning decisions with large incentives to build property tax base, developers to make quick dollars and then fold their company, and federal government picking up much of the tab.

    A major item is one of the cheapest items – better mapping that is frequently updated (say every 10 years) of floodplains. While there is lots of money spent on flood insurance subsidies, there is very little money spent on mapping, so many people don’t even know that they are in a floodplain. Lobby your congressman to aggressively fund FEMA flood mapping – the total dollars wouldn’t even be visible in the budget but would save huge amounts of disaster pain and suffering.

    Wetland and forest destruction, increase in impermeable surfaces, and construction of levees means that the ability of our land to absorb water is greatly reduced and our ability to store flood water without damage is also greatly reduced. better mapping that is frequently updated would identify these issues and allow for smarter zoning and land use regulation before a flood, not after.

    The news broadcasters are always announcing “record setting floods”. If you pay attention, you realize they are talking about the flood stage which is how high the river rises. However, this is greatly influenced by things like reduction in flood storage, especially levee construction. The real key is whether or not the flow rate (volume of water per time) is actually a record. Events like Harvey and Florence do lend themselves to flow rate records due to the extraordinary rainfall, but many of the “record” floods were not record flow rates, just elevation because of the modifications we have made to the land. So we are creating many of our own record flood – that is something that can be managed by policy makers, even though we can’t stop the rain..

    1. XXYY

      … developers make quick dollars and then fold their company, and federal government picking up much of the tab.

      This seems like a tremendous part of the equation, at least for new construction. This wording made me think of how securitized mortgages were handled in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis: quickly create a defective product, then fob it off on someone else before the problems appear. We clearly see this as a bad approach in the case of mortgages; however, this is historically how property development has been handled.

      I remember reading (sorry, I can’t remember where) proposals in England to make property developers responsible for the properties they build for an extended period (ten years?). The obvious idea is to discourage building in flood-prone areas and encourage construction of structures that can withstand obvious and predictable threats. Ensuring that the people making the development decisions have some skin in the game seems like a helpful remedy.

      As I say, at least for new construction.

    2. Anon

      Major flood events (200 yr. storms) are rarely contained by flood control structures (levies, reservoirs). The natural reservoir for record storms is the floodplain (unlimited natural floodplain).

      However, instead of using the floodplain acreage wisely (as wildlife habitat, agriculture, recreation) we’ve put people and (semi) permanent structures into them for semi-permanent economic gain.

      1. rd

        The levees etc. back water up so that the upstream elevations are higher than they otherwise would be. So the people upstream build up their levees etc. and the cycle continues.

        When a levee breaks, it will occur as a torrent wiping out everything in its path. Since the water is higher than normal and storage elsewhere is reduced, it would flood higher in the broken area than it would have before.

        With good mapping, analysis, and planning, critical areas can be protected by levees allowing floodwater to pass through without greatly increasing upstream flooding.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      The re-analysis of new emerging floodplains should also be designed to capture the ever-less-hypothetical possibility of a Harvey-sized rain-dump event happening any random anywhere within the US.

      If a 5-inch-per-hour rainstorm parked and rained someplace for 3 or 4 or 5 hours, the fast-rising water would reveal all kinds of perched flood-ponds, flood-lakes, flash floodplains, etc.
      A map should show where those would be in the event of a TIM rain. ( A True India Monsoon rain).

      1. rd

        The NOAA Hydrometeorological Atlases are pretty good and get updated periodically.

        For example, Hurricane Harvey took about 6-7 days to drop all of its water on places like Houston. The atlas has a 7-day rainfall total of about 26 inches for the 100-year event and 40 inches for the 1,000 year event. That is a reasonable range compared to what actually came down during that event. The big question si if these events are becoming more frequent, so the 100 year event may become the 25 year event and the 1,000 year event become the 100 year event.

        But in any case, good flooding analyses using these events would have predicted many of the problems that came to pass. Instead, Houston decided to do things like issue building permits to developers to construct thousands of homes inside flood control reservoirs on the assumptions the flood control reservoir design events wouldn’t happen.

        So just doing comprehensive flood plain analyses using LIDAR mapping and current precipitation estimates would get us 90%+ there on understanding the issues. However, the politicians, real estate developers, and homeowners don’t want that due to the short-term pain. we have the ability, just not the will.

    4. Adam Eran

      This problem is *big*. Here’s the true story of a development near Sacramento called “North Natomas.”

      North Natomas is a floodplain, surrounded by weak levees. It’s so unsuited for development that one of the conditions of a Federal sewer grant was that if any increased sewer capacity built with that grant served North Natomas development, there would be a $6 million penalty.

      The land speculators didn’t bat an eye. They went all the way to then-Vice-President G.H.W. Bush and got that $6 M transformed into installments. For lagniappe, they also got $43 million in levee improvement grants to bring the levees up to pre-Katrina standards. So…already a pretty good deal: pay $6 on installments and get $43. Where do I sign?

      But wait, there’s more! The speculators paid roughly $2,000 an acre for the tens of thousands of acres of floodplain that happened to be rice fields at the time. They sold it to builders, once the entitlement to development was granted, at $200,000 per acre.

      That’s a 10,000% profit, and it’s mostly tax free because the speculators typically exchange the newly profitable land for income-producing properties like shopping centers and apartments. Even income tax is deferred indefinitely!

      Thanks to developments like these, Sacramento is now second only to New Orleans in flood risk, and the post-Katrina levees are going to cost hundreds of millions more in repairs, but the speculators made their profit…and are down the road.

      Much better is the German system where developers have to sell the outlying land to the local government at the agricultural land price, then re-purchase it at the upzoned price. That “unearned increment” (the name for that 10,000% profit) inures entirely to public benefit.

      And the German public realm is well-funded. Infrastructure is good, schools have excellent apprenticeship programs, and the arts budget for the City of Berlin exceeds the National Endowment for the Arts for the U.S.A.

      It’s worth remembering that 75% of George W. Bush’s fortune comes at public expense, too (from a stadium deal in Arlington, TX). Public benefit going into private pockets is very deeply embedded in the American system, even in “lefty” California.

  2. flora

    Not to worry. The North Carolina is on the job and has already taken care of the problem. /s

    ” ‘Republican lawmakers had sought to quash a March 2010 report from scientists with the Coastal Resources Commission that projected a 20-to-55-inch sea-level rise by the end of the century, disputing the science because it would hurt coastal development,’ the News & Observer reported.”

    1. Carolinian

      Not just North Carolina though? NY state seems to have restored much of their coastal development after their hurricane. We have the Dem, Repub and the Real Estate parties.

      1. rd

        It is a musical chairs problem. In areas with sea level rise and rainfall flood problems, the goal is to figure out how to dump off your assets to a greater fool before the real risk is realized and the asset value drops precipitously. So the willingness of an area to recognize these risks is generally inversely proportional to how much risk they actually bear over the next 50 years or so. Highlighting the risk is not good marketing.

        Over time, I think we will see coastal areas subject to inundation end up being occupied by poor people, coastal business owners, and rich people. The poor people can’t afford to move and the rich people can view their houses as consumables and can install generators and import fresh water or install desalination systems. People whose livelihood is on the coast (fisherman, ocean resorts etc.) will still need to live there. Middle-class folks with mortgages or whose houses are a significant percentage of their net worth won’t be able to afford to live there as they will have the constant risk of losing everything.

        Historically, the average lifespan of a 30-year mortgage is 5-7 years (which is why they are tied to the 10-year T bond rate). I think the big turning point will be when mortgage companies start not issuing 30-year mortgages or greatly increase the interest rates for those mortgages in flood prone areas, even with flood insurance. That is when the prices will start to drop precipitously and the local communities and states will no longer be able to ignore the risk. So it will ultimately be the investors buying MBS securities that will likely redefine flood area policies.

  3. doug

    Princeville has been ‘rebuilt’ multiple times. Wasted money each time. It is too low, yet they will not move, even with promised govt assistance. Sad really…It will flood again, and again.

    And yes, our North Carolina R legislators do not wish to discuss sea level rise, which proves something…

    1. BoyDownTheLane

      “… Suppose you’re the senior EMT immediately on-scene at a shopping mall; a berserk gunman with automatic weapons is hiding somewhere in the building. How do you get to the first several victims?….”
      [ Rescue (Jems Publishing) March-April 1990, pp. 46-52 ]

      “… Orlando Fire District Chief Bryan Davis was in charge of his agency’s response the night of the Pulse shooting. In an interview, he said his department had done active shooter drills, but it wasn’t enough.
      “We didn’t have formalized training,” Davis said. “We didn’t have a policy. We didn’t have a procedure. We had the equipment [bulletproof vests]. But it was locked up in EMS in a storage closet ….”

  4. BoyDownTheLane

    “… On Thursday, the North Carolina Coastal Federation issued a strong warning for residents to stay out of ocean and intracoastal waters due to heightened levels of potentially harmful bacteria caused by “massive stormwater runoff” from Florence.

    Officials warned coastal swimming waters “contaminated with polluted runoff carry bacteria, parasites and viruses that can cause many types of illnesses from minor to severe infections.”

    “These illnesses include bacterial infections, earaches, hepatitis, skin rashes and respiratory issues. Stormwater runoff is a known cause for these illnesses,” they said.”

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    An imminent hanging tends to concentrate the mind. Perhaps the whole concept of “national” assistance for coastal and floodplain flooding should be repealed and ended. Let those states which choose to accept the reality of global warming agree to tax themselves for a joint fund/program/whatever between those Climate Reality-Based States for mitigation/preparation/relief for global warming events within that joint-program community of states. Let those states who choose to accept the illusion of Global Warming Denial be free not to join the Group of Reality Based States. Let them be free to pay zero taxes into the Global Warming Event Response Plan. Let them be free to receive zero assistance from the member-states of the Global Warming Event Response Plan Community.

  6. Tomonthebeach

    FEMA is NOT coming to the rescue – ever. Suggesting otherwise is naive. It is really a matter of the Three Little Pigs. If people wish to live in wood houses in wild-fire and high-wind areas, they should expect to be homeless. If they build in flood-prone areas, they should expect to lose all their belongings. It is unbelievable that that NC spends more time worrying about the person in the next bathroom stall than how many tons of raw animal waste is festering along its main, flood-prone, waterways. It is hard to conjure much sympathy.

    Where I live on the Central Florida Atlantic coast, we get a hurricane almost every year. Our county spends millions every year on beefing up the beaches and dunes because it is far cheaper than wiping out entire towns and rebuilding. We started installing artificial reefs last year – not because of Irma, but because that was the contractor could start. All the buildings in our area are concrete – most roofs are strapped to the walls. The windows of our house are hurricane-proof as is our garage door. All power poles along the barrier islands are windproof concrete monsters. All traffic lights are high-wind-resistant as are the poles from which they are suspended. Most home power and cable lines are underground. We have underground pumps in our sewers to push flood water off the island against tides. We evacuate when told to. We have flood insurance just in case the sewers backup even though we are not in a flood plane.

    Brevard County Florida is not waiting for FEMA to show up a day late and a couple billion short.

    1. Masonboro

      Funny, FEMA picked up storm debris in my neighborhood today (the eye of Florence passed over my house Friday AM) and there was plenty of it. I consider this prompt and efficient. At least in this experience, “I am from the government and am here to help” was welcome news indeed.


  7. HotFlash

    But these natural disasters are partly human-made, which means that humans can also work to avoid future disasters.

    Greeting to the authors, and friendly enquiry as to what they are smoking? s most certainly does *not* imply p in this statement.

  8. none

    We’ll see what those libdems say about immigration when hundreds of thousands of climate-displaced Alabama Republicans start flooding into San Francisco.

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